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'Texas Chainsaw Massacre': The template for modern horror

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Everett Collection

Take your seats, class: Movie critic Owen Gleiberman continues his exploration of horror movies for week 6 of EW University. Check out our gallery of the 20 Top Horror Films of the Last 20 Years and yesterday’s class on legendary horror flick Psycho. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Quentin Tarantino, vampires, and more.

‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’: Vengeance verite

In the early-to-mid-’70s, scuzzy dark horror movies played in scuzzy dark places. There were no megaplexes, and even if there had been, they wouldn’t have programmed any of the grimy B-movie bloodbaths that had begun to spring up in America like garden weeds. Films like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes were off the radar of respectability. (If you’d been told back then that a movie like Saw 3 would one day open on 2,500 screens, it would have sounded about as unlikely as a porn film playing on network television.) The fact that you had to seek these movies out — in a drive-in theater, say, or a run-down, sticky-floored grindhouse converted from some crumbling ’50s movie palace — only added to their forbidden aura. By the ’70s, exploitation horror had become, in effect, a kind of underground culture that trafficked in underground things: Satanism, dismemberment, cannibalism, and — in one unforgettable instance — death by power tools.

The mystique of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s terrifying 1974 masterpiece of redneck-gothic fear and slaughter, begins with one word: chainsaw. You hardly have to see the movie to conjure up a pretty sick image of the damage that could be inflicted by that particular piece of machinery. The movie, in hindsight, was rather restrained; mostly, it suggested what today’s slasher movies show. (How many graphic closeups do you need to communicate the dramatic concept of Death By Meat Hook?) Yet it made you feel as if you were seeing … everything. Not just the gore, but the evil. Here’s the scary original trailer:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre opens with a van full of scruffy ’70s hippie kids driving, without quite knowing where they’re going, into the sunbaked Texas wilderness — an image that has been imitated a thousand times since. Kids. Driving. Away from civilization. What’s been echoed, as well, is the film’s collection of ominously leering, mockingly “hospitable” Southern creeps (an image actually introduced a decade before in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ rambunctiously primitive 1964 gorefest Two Thousand Maniacs!), who in this case are peddling some extremely suspicious barbecue at a store along the local highway.

Mostly, though, what would resonate through the decades long after the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was its most indelible and nightmarish image: a mute, portly psychopath in a slaughterhouse apron, with a thatch of black hair standing up from behind the mask he never takes off (it is made, we soon learn, of human skin), wielding a chainsaw — the scary buzzing phallus that he uses to decimate all “visitors.” His name is Leatherface, and his bizarre first appearance has some of the primitive shock value of the shower scene in Psycho. (He clubs a dude with a hammer, as though he were cattle, then slides a metal door shut as if slamming the gate to hell.)

You could claim, quite rightly, that anyone who goes to see a movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre knows exactly what they’re getting. Yet one of the surprises of the movie is how spare and  low-budget Hitchcockian it is, with an aridly accomplished documentary vibe. It was based, the opening titles said, on a true story, and the thing is, it really felt that way. At moments, it seemed as raw and real as The Blair Witch Project. And since we never got to see what Leatherface looked like, it’s almost as if he really was that guy — the crazy grunting man-beast who wielded his chainsaw like some evil piece of medical equipment. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was such a queasy-crazy this is really happening! bad trip that when I learned that the guy who played Leatherface was an actor named Gunnar Hansen, I just figured that Gunnar Hansen must be a homicidal maniac too.

What Chainsaw channeled, far more than any other horror film of its time, was the dementia, the terrifying insanity, of violence. It made you feel like you were really experiencing what it was like to be murdered. And Leatherface was such a relentless, inexplicable force — a human pig out for vengeful slaughter — that there was something almost cool about him, especially in the movie’s brutally poetic final moments, when, now in a jacket and tie, he twirls his chainsaw around in the highway dawn.

Leatherface was so badass that the movies tried to imitate him for decades. Michael Myers in Halloween? Just a domesticated suburban version of Leatherface. Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th? He was Leatherface goes to summer camp.

As for that chainsaw, no one could ever top it. Yet it became nothing less than the template for modern horror. If you attack someone with a gun, or even a really big machete, it suggests that you’re trying to kill them — and fast. But a chainsaw builds sadism right into the equation. It’s not just an instrument of death, but of torture. And torture — in the Saw films, the Hostel films, and a hundred grade-Z imitators — is now the universal language of horror. The difference is that it’s no longer underground. It’s playing at a theater near you.

For Discussion: Thirty-five years later, does the fear factor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hold up? Do you think it’s the first torture–porn horror film? Where does Leatherface rank on the list of the all-time great horror-movie monsters? Discuss on our Comments boards!

More EW University:

Check out Owen’s class on seminal horror flick Psycho

Slideshow: The best horror films of the last 20 years

Final exam: Take a stab at our horror film trivia quiz

See all EW University courses